Molly Bish: Have Police Been Searching for the Wrong Man for 20 Years? How a Visit to the Crime Scene Changed My Mind

Lori Lamothe

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Sketch of the man in the white car many believe may have murdered Molly Bish. The man has been the focus of the investigation for 2 decades.(The Republican)

Note: I published this story last February 23 and received dozens of emails in response to my theory. I continue to believe the man in the police sketch above did not murder Molly Bish. I apologize in advance for my lack of photography skills.

Accordingly, I don't think Frank Sumner, the most recent POI named in early June 2021, was involved in her death. I am working on a follow-up story so if you have relevant knowledge, please reach out. There is a great deal of detailed information in this piece and it may serve as a helpful refresher. My hope is to see this case solved, whoever is responsible.

Note: I have submitted a 6,000-word follow-up story and it is under review. It should appear soon.

More than twenty years have passed since 16-year-old Molly Bish disappeared from Comins Pond minutes after she arrived to begin her shift as a lifeguard on June 27, 2000. The search for the pretty blonde, blue-eyed high school student was the largest in Massachusetts history. Molly simply vanished.

It was her eighth day on the job she inherited from her older brother John, who had worked as the Comins Pond lifeguard for three years. He trained her, so when police initially theorized his sister had drowned he was skeptical. But that didn’t stop him from diving into the pond over and over to try to find Molly.

As day turned to night the hunt for the missing girl continued with no results. The number of searchers grew to include the local police, the state police and hundreds of volunteers. At 6 a.m. the next day, the search resumed. Helicopters using infrared imaging flew overhead while a mounted unit and police dogs scoured the area. Still no Molly.

Nothing was disturbed but the first-aid kit was open

One of the strangest elements about her disappearance was the seeming normalcy of the scene. Molly clearly saw nothing amiss when she arrived at the beach that day. Her towel was draped over the back of her chair. Her flip-flops were neatly arranged in front, with her Poland Springs water bottle nearby. She had set down her backpack, which contained a whistle and a two-way police radio, on a nearby bench. Because there was no way in 2000 to make an emergency call, Molly picked up the radio every morning and contacted police at the start of her shift. Her first-aid kit lay open but other than that, nothing was disturbed.

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Flyer distributed at the time of Molly’s disappearance(The Republican)

Molly didn’t call in to the police station that morning but that may have been the only deviation from her routine, other than the fact that she was running late because a friend had been in a car accident the night before. According to the timestamp on the camera at the convenience store where she purchased her Poland Springs water bottle, she and her mother Magi entered at 9:50 a.m. Six minutes later, at 9:56 a.m., Molly picked up her two-way radio at the station. They pulled into the dirt parking lot two minutes later, at approximately 9:58 a.m.

Magi was relieved to see the small lot was empty, other than a truck delivering sand for the beach. As a long-time Warren resident, she recognized the sand business and was glad her daughter would not be alone at the remote location. The day before, a middle-aged man smoking a cigarette in a white car had spooked her. She had walked her daughter to the beach and was surprised to find him still there upon her return. Magi stared at him and he returned her gaze, unfazed by her attempt to intimidate him. She waited for the man to leave before pulling out of the lot.

First Day of Swim Lessons

Unlike the previous day, everything seemed fine on June 27. Magi dropped off Molly, who hurried to begin her shift. It was the first day of swimming lessons and she knew it wouldn’t be long before families started showing up at the beach.

When Sandra Woodworth arrived at 10:20 a.m. with her kids, however, Molly was nowhere to be found. Soon other families began arriving and one of the moms rifled through Molly’s backpack to grab her whistle so she could fill in for the missing lifeguard. After another hour passed, someone called Parks Commissioner Ed Fett. Fett arrived at the beach and used Molly’s radio to call the police a little before noon. Magi Bish was notified at about 1 p.m. and was immediately concerned.

Police surmised Molly had gone off with friends or even run away but Magi knew her daughter would never leave her post without telling anyone. She also knew Molly had no reason to run away and summarily dismissed that theory. It wasn’t long before she remembered the man in the white car she had seen the day before. She worked with a police artist to create a drawing of the man in the white sedan and, later, with famous sketch artist Jeanne Boylan, who drew the pictures at the top of this article.

The man’s face, and the white car he drove on June 26, became the focus of investigations for the next 20 years. Various suspects, including convicted murderer Rodney Stanger and convicted child rapist Gerald Battistoni, resembled the sketch and were questioned about their possible involvement, not only in Molly’s murder but in other local unsolved homicides such as Holly Piirainen’s in Sturbridge, MA. Neither man, nor any of the men who resembled the sketch, was arrested.

Remains found on Whiskey Hill

It wasn’t until spring 2003, when a hunter found part of Molly’s blue bathing suit, that search teams located her skeletal remains on Whiskey Hill in Palmer, just a few miles from where she disappeared. The Boston Globe quoted an anonymous source connected with the investigation as stating the crotch area had been removed.

While searchers only located 26 bones, a lock of hair and a tongue ring, positive DNA identification ended any speculation about whether Molly was still alive. The remains, which lay scattered across a 500-foot area on a steep incline in Palmer, were hidden beneath leaves and light ground-covering. According to Worcester County District Attorney John Conte, gouge marks in the arm bones suggested they had been “dragged from the point of origin” by animals.

Over the years, thousands of people have called in tips and hundreds have been interviewed. Twenty people took polygraph tests but 11 did not pass. Police and private detectives have investigated dozens of men who resemble the smoking man but they haven’t discovered enough evidence to make an arrest. Police also checked into thousands of white cars but again, nothing led to the killer’s apprehension. Yet despite years of disappointment and uncertainty, the Bish family never let the case grow cold.

I have always had a particular interest in Molly’s case. I vividly remember watching the news reports about her disappearance and the recovery of her bones three years later. I even brought my daughter to an identity-kit event sponsored by the Molly Bish Foundation.

Recently I decided to take a closer look at the case and after doing so I believe someone other than the man in the white car was the person who took Molly on June 27. I have immense respect for the many people who have dedicated years of their lives to finding the person responsible for Molly’s murder, especially the police detectives on the case. The file remains open and I urge anyone who has information to contact the Massachusetts State Police Unresolved Cases Unit.

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Comins Pond. The arrow indicates the trail that leads to the beach where Molly worked.(Lori Lamothe)

Here are four points that call some theories about her murder into question:

1. The tight timeline suggests Molly’s killer was already waiting for her

One of the critical elements to this crime is its precision. Before I visited the site, I was unclear about the realities of the time frame for the abduction. After seeing the scene on multiple occasions and doing some rudimentary timing with my cell phone stopwatch, I think it’s likely the white car — and therefore the man in the police sketch — was not involved in the crime. This gets a bit detailed, so please bear with me.

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View from the intersection of the trail connecting the beach/cemetery and the trail that leads to the beach entrance.(Lori Lamothe)

According to my own tests and to Google Maps, it takes approximately 4 minutes to drive from the pond parking lot to St. Paul’s Cemetery and 3 minutes to drive to the adjoining Pine Grove Cemetery. According to the sand truck driver, he spotted a white car similar to the one from the day before in the lot “moments” before Magi and Molly arrived. Another witness spotted a white sedan near a car wash that is about a minute from the pond.

The man who took Molly had to have done so before 10:20 a.m. Because she was late that day, her killer had approximately 20 minutes to take her from the beach. The beach is not visible at all from the parking lot and it took me about 90 seconds to walk from the parking lot to the lifeguard chair. So that puts Molly at the lifeguard station at 10 a.m. She then had time to place her backpack on the bench, remove her shoes, put her towel on the back of her chair and place her water bottle in her shoe. Let’s say that took her 2 minutes, bringing the time to 10:02 a.m. Which leaves 18 minutes for her to be off the beach and the trail.

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View from reverse direction on the trail, toward cemetery. Arrow indicates the empty hill where Molly & her abductor would emerge.(Lori Lamothe)

Now let’s flip to the killer’s timeline. If it’s the man in white car, who left the parking lot moments before Molly arrived at 9:58 a.m., and it takes him 3–4 minutes to arrive at the cemetery then another minute to drive to the spot at the end of the trail where the dogs lost Molly’s scent, that puts the time between approximately 10:01 and 10:02 a.m. in a best-case scenario. He probably has to grab a weapon and possibly something to prevent her from screaming before exiting his car.

When I timed the walk from the beginning of the cemetery trail to the lifeguard chair, it took me 88 seconds. So if I add 3 minutes for getting the necessary items and walking from the cemetery to the beach, the time is between 10:03 and 10:05 a.m. Remember Molly had already laid out her things by approximately 10:02 a.m. By 10:03 and especially 10:05 a.m. she would likely already have gotten her radio out of her bag and called the station. So there is already a possible timing issue.

In addition, the killer had to abduct Molly either by convincing her he was injured and taking her by surprise or just grabbing her. It took me 95 seconds to walk up the trail to the place where the cemetery begins. So allotting 60 seconds for the fake injury/abduction we’re now at between 10:06 and 10:08 a.m. Keep in mind I wasn’t forcing an unwilling teenager without shoes up the trail. A minimally realistic assessment pushes the time forward to 10:10 a.m. at the earliest.

There is something else to consider. June 27 was the first day of swim lessons, so there was no guarantee families wouldn’t arrive at the beach before 10:20 a.m. The beach opened at 10 a.m. In addition, Comins Pond Road is a dead end street.

If the man in the white car was the killer and had planned to abduct her via the cemetery, on his way to the cemetery he risked being seen by the 1) the sand-truck driver; 2) Magi on her way back from the beach; 3) parents on their way to the beach with their kids; 4) people who live in the houses on Comins Pond Road; and 5) people in houses on Southbridge and Maple Streets, as well as joggers, walkers and other drivers on those streets.

Such risky — even reckless — behavior suggests a level of disorganization that doesn’t fit the extremely precise timing of the crime. In addition, had the killer driven from the beach lot to the cemetery, how could he be sure Molly wouldn’t have taken out her whistle by the time he’s hurrying toward her on the beach below. He may have been able to see a radio, but not a whistle.

Moreover, her mother had just warned her about the man in the white car the previous day. Would Molly have allowed this same middle-aged man to approach her without trying to grab her radio or the whistle? Would she have opened the first-aid kit and offered to help this particular man? It is possible but it seems more likely something else occurred that day.

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View from the end of the trail from Comins Pond to the cemetery. It took me 88 seconds to walk from here to the lifeguard chair,(Lori Lamothe)

2. The man in the white car could not have been watching Molly from the parking lot on previous days — or any days

It is critical to understanding the case to realize you can’t see the beach at all from the parking lot. Several witnesses noted they had seen either a white car or a man in a white car in or around the area prior to Molly’s disappearance. He could not have been watching Molly on the beach from his car. If he were going to plan an abduction, the logical, organized way to do so would have been to park in the cemetery and watch her from the woods behind the beach. This doesn’t rule out him as a possible suspect but it does suggest he may have been in the lot for another, unrelated reason.

A friend of Molly’s who often ate lunch with her told The Boston Globe they saw a “chubby” 50ish man snorkeling and trying to catch fish with his hands at the pond. The man drove a white Chevy Corsica and the friend, 14 at the time, believed he killed her, though on her first week they just “laughed” about him. It seems quite possible the man may simply have been there to snorkel and fish, which might explain his presence in the parking lot the day she was abducted from the cemetery.

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Entrance to Comins Pond. You cannot see any part of the beach from the parking lot.(Lori Lamothe)

Even with my car parked in the closest spot to the pond, I couldn’t see any part of the beach. To get there I had to walk up a small incline and cross a footbridge then walk a short distance. The beach itself is surrounded by dense foliage and no houses are nearby.

As for why the man in the white car never came forward, it seems likely he would want to stay anonymous and not be named as a suspect in such a highly publicized case. This would be even more true if he had some type of record.

I unearthed varying accounts of the white car and its whereabouts on the day of the abduction. On July 8, 2000, Holly Angelo reported the following:

John Borowiec, a part-time groundskeeper at St. Paul’s Cemetery on Maple Street, said he saw a white car parked near the new part of Pine Grove Cemetery on the morning that Bish disappeared. The two cemeteries connect and may be reached through the woods from the pond.
“I saw a white car with nobody in it behind the cemetery that Tuesday morning,” said Borowiec, who lives on Southbridge Road.
He said that investigators have talked to him at least six times about the car, and have asked if he would be willing to be hypnotized to remember more about the vehicle.
“They mentioned something to me about being hypnotized. I said I would,” he said. “I can’t see how I’m going to remember more. I only saw the roof and the two side windows.”

Another book contains an account of another interview with the long-time groundskeeper, who died in 2012, that places the white car at the spot where the trail from the beach ends, which in some accounts is the point where the tracking dogs lost Molly’s scent. In Who Took Molly Bish?, published in 2020, Sarah Stein includes a photo of the spot where the trail opens onto St. Paul’s Cemetery and writes the following after her interview with Borowiec, an ex-marine, as well as a former heavy equipment operator for the Town of Warren and an employee at R.J. Fijol, Inc.:

“Mr. Borowiec pointed me to the spot where he specifically saw the white car parked on the morning of June 27, 2000. It was parked approximately where the patch of sunlight is on the roadway in this photo. Below is the view we believe Molly had as she was abducted from the beach, was walked down the trail coming out into the cemetery where the white car was parked.”

The photo in Dr. Stein’s book shows the same view as my photo earlier in this story and marks the point where the dogs lost the trail. I spent several days walking around both cemeteries, which appear to be connected by a paved road. They share a sign at their meeting point, with St. Paul’s written on the back and Pine Grove on the front.

A Boston Globe story on June 18, 2003 states Borowiec told a reporter he saw the white car in the same spot Stein mentions “between 10 a.m. and 10:35 a.m.” After leafing through photos of car models, he chose “a Dodge Dynasty, recognizing its distinctive boxy rear window.”

“I came up around to get a sandwich and that’s when I spotted it,” he said.

Borowiec does not mention hearing anything in any interviews I found, though it would appear he was present in that vicinity of the cemetery at the time the abduction occurred. State property maps suggest Molly and her killer came out at the back of St. Paul’s Cemetery, not Pine Grove as reported. To an outsider it also appears that the spot is part of St. Paul’s Cemetery. Either way, the back of St. Paul’s is in the immediate vicinity of where the trail ends.

Multiple sources report a witness account of a scream, such as this news article on April 1, 2001:

Screams were heard at the pond that morning, but there were no signs of struggle. There was no blood, hair or clothing at the scene, said Worcester County District Attorney John J. Conte, who leads the investigation.
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View from edge of St. Paul’s Cemetery into Pine Grove Cemetery. You can see the connecting road in the middle of picture.(Lori Lamothe)

I contacted several people to try to answer questions I had about this. At this time, I have not heard back from the Massachusetts State Police. Dr. Stein’s assistant said, “We wish you the very best” and indicated that her busy schedule does not permit interviews now but encouraged me to try again after her next book is published. Private investigator Dan Malley, of Allegiant Investigations, who has worked with the Bish family, sent me this cordial reply:

“Thank you for taking an interest in the case. I cannot discuss an open case.”

3. The view from the trail intersection would have given the killer an ideal vantage point and allowed him to time the crime perfectly.

The trail that runs from behind the lifeguard’s chair to the cemetery intersects with another trail that leads from the pond entrance into the woods. From that cross-point, you can see toward the entrance and can also see the beach below. It took me 23 seconds to walk from the lifeguard chair to the intersection of the two trails.

If the killer was in that vicinity, he would have a perfect vantage point from which to commit the crime quickly with military precision. He could wait until she had laid out her things to approach her from above, thus guaranteeing everything looked as it usually did. Even more importantly, if he saw anyone or heard a car in the parking lot, he could cancel his plan and wait for another opportunity.

It was the illusion of normalcy that bought him hours, if not years. According to Worcester District Attorney Joseph Early, authorities didn’t treat the area like a crime scene at first.

“Everyone thought Molly drowned,” he said. “There wasn’t any police tape put up for a while. So a lot of things that normally when you get to a homicide scene, you would say you would protect weren’t protected.”

Two weeks after she vanished, Marc Holly, Molly’s boyfriend’s stepbrother, told a reporter the neatness of the items and the placing of the shoes in front of the chair struck him as odd. “She usually kept her shoes under the chair,” he said.

Holly’s comment implies someone either instructed her to place them there or placed them there himself to stage the scene. Either way, the presence of her shoes neatly arranged all but guaranteed authorities would think she may have drowned and call in divers to search the pond.

This, in addition to the fact that it was the first day of swim lessons, ensured any forensic evidence would be destroyed. If the killer did wait for that particular day, it suggests he may have been from the immediate area and known the local schedule. It also suggests a high degree of planning and organization.

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St. Paul’s Cemetery from the opposite direction. Down the hill and around the corner to the right is where the trail ends and approximately(Lori Lamothe)

One key point is that the trail from the beach up to the cemetery is very steep and the trail lets out onto a hill. It would not have been possible to drag a 125-pound woman up to the cemetery in a timely fashion. She had to have walked, which implies she either went willingly (under a ruse by someone she trusted at least somewhat) or went because her killer had a weapon. Or both.

4. The murderer may have disposed of Molly’s remains in West Warren, not Palmer

As part of my visit to the area, I also went to pay my respects to the place where Molly’s remains were found. The bones identified as hers included an arm bone, a shin bone and an intact skull that was used to verify dental records. The NeNameseck Sporting Club is across the street a short distance from a wooden cross dedicated to Molly. From the Christmas decorations adorning the marker, it was clear she hasn’t been forgotten.

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Topographical map of Warren-Palmer border. Green marker in upper left part of map is approximately where Molly’s remains were found.(Mass,gov)

The second thing that struck me was just how steep the climb up Whiskey Hill actually is. Conte’s assertion that animals likely moved the 26 bones from their original spot makes perfect sense. Another possibility that occurred to me was that whoever disposed of Molly’s body may well have approached the area from the West Warren side of the border between the two towns, which would have meant he left the body on higher ground.

This seems more plausible than if he placed it on the Palmer side near the shooting range. An examination of property and topographical maps for West Warren reveals much of that area near Whiskey Hill is conservation land owned by the state (a large chunk of the area now belongs to the Palmer Motorsports Park but that was not true until 2013). Other lots in the area include a large Copart of Connecticut auto salvage facility for online car auctions that abuts the conservation land and R.J. Fijol, Inc, an auto salvage facility that had the gate open when I visited.

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Entrance to R.J. Fijol, an auto salvage facility on West Warren Road that is alleged to have been used as an unoffical police shooting range(Lori Lamothe)

Who killed Molly Bish? Could it be the man with the heavy mustache in the white car after all? It seems more likely the killer was an observer who knew the area and Molly’s routines well. Someone she trusted who lured her to her death by feigning an injury. Or will DNA testing reveal someone police never looked at?

State police continue to investigate the case in hopes that one day Molly’s family will finally get justice. If you have any information, please contact the Massachusetts State Police’s unresolved case unit at 508–820–2021. You can also email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com or contact me via Signal.

To quote the Molly Bish Foundation’s site: Somebody knows something. If you are that somebody, do the right thing and come forward.

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Writer, assistant professor, former baker. I cover cold cases, history, recipes, and culture. If you have a story idea you'd like me to investigate, you can email me at lorilamothe29@gmail.com.

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